At Work With Grace Lee, Artist Relations Guru at YouTube Music
At Work is a weekly Rolling Stone series exploring how decision-makers in the fast-changing music business spend their hectic days — as well as what burgeoning ideas they’re keen to explore, what advice they’d give to industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
YouTube Music has only been around for a year and a half. But its East Coast head of artist relations, Grace Lee, has more than a decade of experience in her role. Lee — who works on a global team at YouTube and Google that liaises with both up-and-coming artists and superstars — cut her teeth in video promotion at Sony’s Columbia Records during the pre-streaming music industry downturn before jumping to the tech side of the business, where she’s now privy to a whole different set of decisions governing the future of album releases, strategy rollouts, and more. Constantly discovering new corners of the world has been “a common narrative for me,” says Lee, who originally thought she would go to law school after college. The industry veteran spoke with Rolling Stone about her favorite artist relationships, the starkest differences going from a label to a tech giant with some 98,000 employees, and her predictions for the trends and challenges in music ahead.
What’s your role at YouTube Music?
I find ways to support artists — to help them connect with fans, get their message across, and strategically use our tools to do that. It’s definitely not a nine-to-five job; I don’t think anything in the music business is nine-to-five. My team has about 11 folks in the U.S., and a few in the U.K., across Europe, Australia, Japan, Korea, India, Latin America. We’re constantly sharing music discoveries with each other about what’s popping in each market.
Most days I’m talking to managers and artists, getting a sense of their release schedules, the content they have coming. In non-pandemic times, we have about 10 artists come in [to the New York office] per week.
Are those 10 usually a pretty diverse mix?
We have a lot of folks come in who are just getting started — maybe they’ve built a fan base on YouTube or maybe they’ve just signed a deal and are coming up. But then we also have the big guys coming in to talk about what they want to do differently this time around; maybe they’re going in a different direction and want to explore new ways to use YouTube. It’s all genres. All levels of career.
When people hear the term “artist relations,” they may picture artists throwing temper tantrums and executives calming them down. How much is that a part of your job?
We try to form really close and genuine relationships with artists. There could be times when somebody is freaking out — maybe there’s an issue with their channel or maybe they’re concerned about how a piece of content is performing. So there is a degree of that. But it’s not so much calming them down. It’s trying to get an understanding of what they are trying to do.
I approach an artist as a person who is trying to communicate a message and is passionate about it. I think if you can relate on that level, it’s always helpful as a starting point. I wouldn’t assume that I know more than anyone I ever meet; I wouldn’t approach it as like, “Let me teach you something.” It’s more about getting a sense of what they want to do and sharing how you can help.
Are there particular artists you’ve really loved working with?
There have been a few I’ve worked with for several years. My standout is Dua Lipa. I met her very early on in her career and stuck with her from them to now, about five years. She started with us. It’s been amazing and rewarding. When we first met Dua, before she put out an album or even a single, she used YouTube to learn best practices of what to do on her channel. She’s grown so much. She was a baby artist!
Because YouTube is such a broad platform, it allows us to form relationships with artists all across the board. Would I have thought I’d ever be in Puerto Rico with Ozuna at his show? No, but that’s the kind of surprising experience I get to have.
What are the most challenging aspects of your role?
I built a career at a label. So I learned from a label how to relate to artists in a very specific way. I did a lot of promotion, I was on the road sometimes; I got opportunity to understand what makes them tick, what they want to do, and I’ve been lucky in being able to apply that knowledge base and experience in this role. There are challenges — having to adjust quickly to timelines changing, or having to pivot to different content quickly — but these are also skills.
I was at Columbia for eight years and 10 months. I’d spent so much of my career at a label, and in the specific department of video promotion. I came to a realization that I wanted to try something else. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done for my career, being able to apply my experience from a label to a new field.
Columbia is a major, but in terms of size, you can’t even compare — Google is a behemoth. If you think about what it takes to get things moving, it’s a bit of a different scale. At a label, everyone is pretty much focused on the same goal: Everyone’s trying to have the artist be successful and get the music out, everyone’s marching in the same direction. At Google and YouTube Music, there’s so much going on, which is exciting, but sometimes that can be a challenge, too.
Have you discovered jobs at YouTube Music you didn’t know existed?
That’s been a common narrative for me. I didn’t even know a career in the music industry was a thing! I was on track to go to law school, at first. Going from that to working at a record label was completely crazy to me. And now, being in the tech world, I get to think about things in a different way and work with people I would never have before. Google’s so funny because there are a lot of acronyms people use for things, and that adjustment took a while.
There are a lot of people going from music labels and management to tech right now, and we all have a similar narrative — we used to be so focused on getting the music out, and it’s eye-opening to think about how the algorithm works or how there are whole other worlds that can be so helpful and useful to music that I didn’t know about in my corner of Columbia. It was a steep learning curve.
It’s also sort of like seeing the future — seeing where music is going. When I started at Columbia in the mid-2000s, toward the end of the Napster era even before iTunes was big, the business was changing so much from start to finish. Walking into YouTube, it was like, “Whoa, so this is how things are really going to work in the future.” That’s been awesome.
Do you feel that being at Columbia during the industry’s toughest times shaped your perspective on work?
Those tough years really bonded a lot of people. I’m friends with a lot of people who started in the same generation as me, and that’s been cool because we’ve all collectively experienced the change. It’s nice to have that history. We’ve seen the business evolve together, we’ve grown through it together, and now we can speak on it as a thing we learned from.
What’s an underrated or nascent trend in the music business right now? From your perspective at a data-rich tech company, what do you see on the horizon?
I see the business moving toward having more of a global sensibility. We’ve seen this with Latin music penetrating the U.S. market for the past 20 years, of course — but now it’s not just “Latin music,” it’s Latin trap, reggaeton, all kinds of stuff that the general U.S. consumer is open to now. It’s the same with K-pop. Global music culture is not just the way the music industry is looking at things now, it’s also the way consumers are looking at things now. I think that will continue.
What was the impetus that took you away from law school and into music?
My last year of undergrad at Northwestern, I look the LSAT and planned to work at a law firm for a year then go to law school. I did work at a corporate firm in D.C. the first year out of college, but it was during that time I really started to question that [plan]. I did this internship at an indie label in D.C. while I worked at the law firm, and through that, I was like, “Ooh, I think this is it. This is what I’m passionate about. I think I need to try and hustle and get a job in music.” It was either New York or L.A., and I had more friends in New York and wouldn’t have to get a car. So here we are.
What do you tell young people entering the industry seeking your mentorship?
I think it’s very easy to get overwhelmed. I try to drive home to people is to take their time. The three people I just hired at the end of last year are brilliant, rockstar, Type-A, want-to-do-a-great-job people — but I said to them that it does take a second to get acclimated. I tell people to try to take time to dig into topics, learn things, connect, you know. It’ll come.
“This industry is small. You’ve got to be nice to people. There are artist managers I work with now who were my interns a few years ago. So you have to be nice, because you never know — in five years, someone could be your boss.”
What’s the best piece of advice you got along the way?
This industry is small. You’ve got to be nice to people. There are artist managers I work with now who were my interns a few years ago. So you have to be nice, because you never know — in five years, someone could be your boss. Relationships are everything in music, everyone knows that, but especially now. There’s a lot of musical chairs in different positions. People are usually one to two degrees away from each other.
I also have my own passion project: Something I started with a couple partners this year is an initiative to connect Asian Americans who work in the music industry. Coming up, I was so lucky and had lots of really good mentors, but none of them were Asian American. One of the things that’s important to me is to serve as that, and to bring Asian Americans in music together for mentorship, networking, guidance. It’s in very nascent stages, but we had our first event in L.A. around the Grammys, a happy hour with about 150 people. It was artists, writers, producers, managers, agents — students who want to break into the business as well as people who’d been working for decades.
I didn’t even know there were 150 Asian Americans in the music industry.
I know! That’s the thing! You don’t think there are that many, but once you tell someone and they tell their friend and others see it on Instagram or LinkedIn, it’s all these people before you know it. It’s super cool. It was just dope. I was looking around the room and thinking, “Wow.”